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Assume Everyone Online Works for an Arms Manufacturer

When I got online for the first time in the late ‘90s, my parents warned me that while people can say anything on the Internet, that doesn’t mean it’s true. Somewhere along the way we lost this essential knowledge.

If you’re a Twitter user, you’ve maybe noticed that “Lockheed Martin” has been trending on and off since the weekend. It had turned out that a well-known Internet user who had positioned themselves as a moral arbiter had in fact been working at the arms manufacturer for 15 years, knowledge that shocked their friends and foes alike. This news inspired great jokes as well as useful discussion about the morality of working at such a place and whether it’s ever acceptable (probably not). It also inspired a tedious counter-backlash that got many strident and annoyingly judgmental people to admit that they themselves work in the military-industrial complex or,  in one case, for the husband of an anti-abortion domestic terrorist. These admissions were often horrifying—as they say online, the CIA couldn’t have gotten that information out of me—but it all reminded me of what my parents used to tell me about the Internet: assume everyone is lying.

In the age of chat rooms and message boards, that was a basic truth everyone knew about the Internet. The hot chick you were sexting with was probably not hot, and could have been of any gender; the people with which you embroiled in serious debate were just as likely to be college professors as they were 12-year-olds. But social media—and especially Facebook, with its insistence on real names—eroded what was once a silent agreement between all users of the Internet. Social media is a space designed to be unique to oneself, where you share about yourself in a spirit of radical honesty—or at least seem to. Of course it must be true—they’re using their real name! Look at all the other accounts they have, and all the pictures they post of their lives! Everyone knows, of course, that a carefully curated Instagram feed doesn’t exactly represent reality, but there’s a categorical difference between deliberately choosing certain angles to make your apartment look bigger and fancier than it is and the kind of full-time LARPing that’s consumed the Internet this week, and which everyone was once constantly attuned to.

It’s very easy to lie online—you just have to type something and then hit post. I’m thinking about the Tumblr user who was outed as having child slaves, or the big name in the Harry Potter fandom who created an elaborate web of sockpuppet accounts to get people to believe that they were being persecuted by homophobic Christian fundamentalists, or the scammer who convinced people that they were putting on a Lord of the Rings convention up until the weekend of the event itself, where people ended up stranded in Los Angeles with no convention to go to. These misrepresentations aren’t just ancient Internet history—in 2020, science academics discovered that a queer Indigenous professor that they’d befriended had never existed at all. It’s easy to forget about these things because, well, they are hilarious and impossible to describe without sounding like you’re making it up.

One thing that allowed many to accept these people as truthful was the way in which they also positioned themselves as moral arbiters and built up their cults of personality. The Tumblr user/child slave owner was an also an empathic healer. The Livejournal fanfic writer was constantly under attack by fundamentalists and needed the community’s support. The Lord of the Rings fan would go so far as to imply he was hanging out with cast members, or was himself a cast member. If we don’t enter online spaces with a healthy skepticism, then it’s easy to accept these things as true, rather than incredibly unlikely.

You don’t have to assume everyone is lying all the time, but being skeptical can save you from the feeling of being betrayed. What has really hurt people on Twitter in the past week was that they trusted a person to not work at an arms manufacturer, because this person portrayed themselves as the kind of person who would know that was wrong. That trust was misplaced, but the good thing is that you don’t have to trust anyone to have a good time on the Internet. If you make the assumption that whatever a stranger says is at least as likely to be untrue as true, you learn to trust your own judgment. It hopefully also means you won’t uplift someone who is lying maliciously, no matter how impassioned or righteous they present themselves as being, and are thus saving other people from that same betrayal I felt when I learned a Harry Potter enthusiast was lying about her entire life.

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